Together While Apart: Classroom Communication

By their very nature, pandemics shake the systems of society, and that is certainly true for the global educational system right now. Institutions have had to adjust their entire structures, and for many educators, that has meant being thrust into remote learning environments, often without time to study or plan for the change. Until now, many educators have rightfully spent the bulk of their energies on meeting students’ most urgent needs, checking on physical and mental well-being first. Now, though, we find ourselves beginning to plan and conduct actual instruction, and the realities of remote learning bring new challenges. However, it may also bring opportunities to innovate, and, in the way of teachers across time, chances to flex our problem-solving muscles.

Our hope is that the Turnitin team can support you in ensuring student needs are met. This post, the first of three in our Together While Apart series, is part of our effort to help, but that’s not all that we’re doing. We have officially launched Turnitin’s Remote Learning Resources page and populated it with all the best materials, including past publications and a stockpile of brand new content specifically designed to meet the challenges of remote learning.

Remote learning is a broad term encompassing many different approaches. Often, these approaches fall into two brackets – synchronous or asynchronous. When classes meet at specific times in much the same way that they would in person, except that some form of technology is connecting everyone, that is known as synchronous learning. Because of the emergency nature of COVID-19, many institutions are finding themselves more likely to pursue asynchronous learning. In asynchronous learning, collective meetings are not always happening in real-time, and students often independently access content, assignments, and assessments virtually (or even through paper formats, in some places) on widely varying schedules.

Of the many shifts in instructional delivery, one of the most dramatic will be the methods by which educators communicate with their students. The challenges there will impact nearly every aspect of asynchronous instruction, so let’s begin there.

Instructor Challenge: How will I help my students combat a feeling of having limited live access to personalized support?


  1. Set up specific shared times for discussions, question and answer, etc. so that students CAN schedule around the time and check-in if they need to. Make sure to set these times up in advance to increase the possibility that students will be able to participate. For students who can’t join in real-time, record those sessions and post them so that students won’t be isolated or miss out on critical conversations. Additionally, this will build in opportunities for peer interaction and support, which can be critical to the learning process and may help feelings of isolation, loneliness, and even depression that can occur when working remotely. This is a common phenomenon for people working remotely and is likely to present a similar problem for some students.
  2. Offer 1:1 time slots on the calendar for students in the event that they need more support. In addition to the shared times for interaction, many students will want or need some individual interaction with instructors. It’s important to give them time and space to ask questions, seek out individualized clarification and support, and to simply connect.

Instructor Challenge: How will I ensure that my students always know WHEN learning activities are occurring and WHERE to find the information they need?


  1. Set up a centralized communication hub with ALL relevant information. Students can link out to the various tools and materials you’ll use, but they will have this as a home base of sorts.
  2. Establish a calendar! Set up a shared calendar where you list all relevant dates and can allow students to use it to schedule their own learning activities and time with you. Pro Tip: Feedback Studio users can use the Class Calendar tool to do this inside the system for ease of access to the information. 
  3. Consistent communication methods – pick the right tool for a task and then stick to it. Try making a list of all the different kinds of communication tasks involved in your instruction, and then match each to a communication TOOL that will best fit the purpose. For example, giving an overview of an assignment is different than providing ongoing feedback throughout an assignment. Which is the best tool for each? You need something that is well suited to longer, more comprehensive sets of information for the overview, but you need something fast and tied to specific student work for the second. Be thoughtful about the tools you select. Once you match each task with a particular tool, make sure you document that and share it with your students. Keep it in a location where students can easily access it over time too.

Once you select a tool, use it consistently! For example, try to avoid announcing some assignments through email and then some on a discussion board and still others on Twitter. Using other communication methods as back-ups are fine, but always utilize the one established upfront so there isn’t any confusion about where to access information.

Instructor Challenge: Since I am not communicating in person with my students, how will I avoid misalignment or misunderstandings about expectations, processes, or products?


  1. Anticipate questions or misunderstandings and address them upfront. It might help to picture a particular student and ask what questions they might have. By answering them in advance, you are more likely to head off any confusion and save both yourself and your students wasted time and effort. Additionally, you will ensure that every student has the right information whether they ask for it or not.
  2. Over-communicate – If you think your students already know your expectations, spell them out anyway. Sometimes, we make assumptions about how students think, but students surprise us. Losing physical proximity can complicate this even more. Outside the physical environment of a classroom, students sometimes fall back into the patterns of their new space. “I’m learning from my kitchen table, where I feel relaxed and easy-going.” Sometimes, those changes infect their thinking about work and expectations in unproductive ways. Therefore, it’s important to take the time to reassert those expectations and processes so that they carry over into students’ work.
  3. Document – To the greatest extent possible, write down and/or record–audio or video, and with captions, if available–all information so that students can access it repeatedly. This might seem incredibly time-consuming, but the upfront investment will save time later as you’ll be able to refer students back to it anytime you need to, and you’ll find that you are able to re-use it. Since students won’t be accessing instructions or content at the same time, recording it in writing or through another medium means that they can read or hear it from anywhere, any time, and as MANY times as they need to. Just think… this might actually mean that you don’t have to answer the same question 10 times! Additionally, it means that students can repeat information without any fear of judgment from their teacher or their peers, and you will have done so in a way that encourages them to seek out critical information they need rather than passively waiting.
  4. Provide feedback about expectations and processes, not only products. Students will make mistakes. In many cases, asynchronous learning is new to them too. Include opportunities to practice new skills within the tools they use and the processes involved, and make sure you give them feedback. Doing so has the added bonus of building their sense of agency and taking ownership of their own learning. Pro Tip: Be honest about your mistakes and what you have learned from this process so that students understand that learning is messy and requires us all to be reflective.

Students and teachers alike are overwhelmed by all that has changed in such a short time. That means that the “soft skills” that go into effective educational practices are perhaps more essential than ever. At its most fundamental level, education is built on relationships and communication.


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